Past the strawberries dipped in chocolate and covered with walnuts, past the homegrown Oyo vodka tasting station, past the seared tuna with scallions, up the ramp and beyond the chandelier made of women's panties (I'm not making this up), I followed the throbbing sound of music and saw a huge screen with images of pulsing fractals that might have been melting sine waves. People were dancing to the sound of a deejay and live drummer. There were rippling waves of texture and fat, viscous beats that dissipated to techno rhythms. Which gave Off the Grid, a late April fundraiser-cum-throw-down party for the Wexner Center for the Arts, its own manic energy.
If nothing else, the cool people were getting their late-night kicks.
It's easy to take the Wexner Center for granted. It imports such a large amount of arts and entertainment that those in the city may forget just how bleak the cultural offerings were before the center opened in 1989. Over the seven years I've lived here, I have seen music shows of burning originality, by everyone from Africa's Congotronics to Indian composer/jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. I've feasted on documentaries too numerous to recount, taken in dances from around the globe and enjoyed exhibits by artists as different as Andy Warhol and comic book wizard Jeff Smith.
Given this, it's tempting to think that everything the Wexner brings to Columbus is a gem. So to test that theory I immersed myself in Wexner offerings for a couple of months. I saw theater, music, films and more. And I came away both amazed and surprised. For some of the most ballyhooed shows, anointed as works of "genius," were disappointing, while some of the more obscure fare was riveting.
Take Terminus, a drama imported from Dublin's Abbey Theatre. Mark O'Rowe, the playwright, is considered one of the young lions of Irish theater. But his three-person show, a series of sometimes interconnected monologues that I saw March 9 at the Thurber Theatre, had the feel of a gothic Cat in the Hat-with its endless, often silly rhymes and improbably lurid subject matter. The play takes you into a supernatural story unfurled by three people. One is a desolate young woman wounded in passion and love. Another, her mother, is seeking atonement. Center stage is a creepy serial killer who has apparently made a deal with Satan.
Maybe it was just my imagination, but people laughed in the wrong places at times. The killer came off as comical, the woman was abrasive and the mother pretentious.
I was hoping for greatness from Anna Deavere Smith, whose Fires in the Mirror was a work of such blazing imagination. But Smith's much-anticipated show, Let Me Down Easy, staged at the Lincoln Theatre, was safe and tepid mimicry. Smith followed her standard motif, interviewing an assortment of characters around a burning issue-healthcare-and then distilling the interviews to their essence. OK, that held promise. But I wondered what questions she asked? More to the point: What determined who she interviewed? I ask that because Lauren Hutton, the supermodel, made it into the performance-a questionable choice.
Few if any of the people Smith dealt with were futureless, homeless or jobless. She never reached for tragedy, which the real tale of the health-haves and have-nots is all about. Instead, Smith impersonated the likes of cancer survivor/sports celebrity Lance Armstrong and movie critic Joel Siegel. Like a water bug, she stayed comfortably on the surface, as if intentionally dumbing down her work to appeal to all types. She got some laughs, but they were easy. In the end, this sleek performance-Smith had a wardrobe assistant handing her outfits, a totally unnecessary detail for a one-woman show-was a shallow exercise in technique.
Now to the rewarding, starting with Rez Abbasi's Feb. 19 show at the performance space in the Wexner. A Pakistani jazz guitarist who's been influenced by Qawwali music, Abbasi put on a dazzling concert that fused free-swinging jazz with trancelike figures from Pakistan's mystical vocal music. And Abbasi's sidemen, notably alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, created fireworks that lifted the music ever higher, creating shimmering climaxes that reiterated the motifis of Qawwali as rendered through a jazz sensibility.
A highlight of my Wexner immersion was seeing And Everything is Going Fine, a documentary about the great monologuist Spalding Gray. He was a storyteller and actor who died tragically in 2004, ostensibly from suicide. In this memorable film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, Gray reveals his genius for approaching the truth of the matter through stories. The film, which boasts startling fragments from his shows, reveals his sly wit and daring vision.
On April 10 and 17, in two marathon showings, I saw Shoah, French director Claude Lanzmann's harrowing documentary about the Holocaust. The film is a lament of the soul that contains no black and white newsreel footage. Instead, Lanzmann trained a camera on a handful of survivors and witnesses, German and Polish, who worked in the camps.
Here, we meet a train engineer who took Jews to the death camp while smashed on vodka. And we witness an interview of a barber who cut the hair of the Jews who went from his bench to the gas chambers, freshly shorn of their locks. Lanzmann's camera opens up the world of evil's banality like nothing else.
Kudos to the Wexner for bringing this astonishing work, first released in 1985, to Columbus.